Driven to distraction?

Charles Cowling

inquisition

 

Posted by Vale

I am a celebrant of the tribe of IOCF (lapsed). We have a short creed that describes a Civil Funeral, it goes:

A Civil Funeral is driven by the wishes, beliefs and values of the deceased and their family, not by the beliefs or ideology of the person conducting the funeral. It sits between a religious service and a humanist funeral.

We swing both ways, you might say. The question is, how far should we swing?

I have been asked to lead services recently that are effectively religious services: two hymns, the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer (suitably non-denominational and non-specific ) at committal too.

The rationale for the family seems to be that they have no living connection with a church, but they want the trappings and reassurance of something very traditional. They also, I think, want to feel in control of the process. I am a reassuring presence, because they are commissioning me.

The services themselves are lovely – warm and full of comfort…but something niggles at me. When does responding to a family’s wishes become a masquerade? When should you call for the priest?

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Jenny Uzzell
Guest

Thanks, Kathryn, that’s more or less exactly what I was going to say! 🙂 I think that while the best celebrants have good ‘acting skills’ there is a difference between what you do and ‘acting’. You are, to some extent, speaking on behalf of the people there. It is not necessary to have exactly the same beliefs as they do, I don’t think, but I do think that any jarring differences might be difficult. Vale, I think you have actually highlighted one of my concerns in the last point you make; the ‘ju ju’. Is there a difference between that… Read more »

Ru Callender
Guest

You’re a wise old bird Vale..

Vale
Guest
Vale

It has been a great discussion hasn’t it Charles? the GFG at its best – digging into the sort of conundrums that a practitioner like myself faces and tries to work through so that the cognitive dissonance (lovely analysis Jenny) is kept to a minimum. As practical advice I think it would be hard to beat A Celeb’s approach, but I’d change ‘fitting’ to ‘fit’, asking yourself whether a particular suggestion is a good fit, seems a useful rule of thumb. I like the rigour of Andrew’s distinction – I think it really matters that we are careful about the… Read more »

Richard
Guest
Richard

Vale, I found myself thinking of your words at Mass today: “I am not sure that the idea of priestly juju is helpful (or real) or that there is any distinction between the appearance of Juju and good theatre. The RCs are brilliant at this and (forgive me Richard) have been thrilling congregations with bells and smells forever. For me, if there is power, it is gifted by the congregation and the family and has its true roots in kindness and sincerity”. At the invitation to Holy Communion, the priest says: “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes… Read more »

Charles
Guest

Vale, does all this answer your question?

Lol Owen
Guest
Lol Owen

Interesting can of worms this one. As a celebrant I have conducted services devoid of any religion or the afterlife, a Buddhist one, and the majority have religious content of at least a prayer up to and including several hymns, prayers, Psalm 23. Does any of it make me feel uncomfortable? No. Would I recommend a minister sometimes? Not so far. If a family asked me to perform a funeral service as laid down in the Book of Common Prayer then I would offer them the option. I have several reasons for this. Firstly I am a Christian who in… Read more »

Charles
Guest

You say “A celebrant who is effectively ‘lying’ cannot be doing themselves any good”, Jenny, and “It does not do anyone any good to live with that kind of cognitive dissonance for too long!” I’m interested in that — because actors sort of do that all the time (especially when they’re playing horrible people), and celebrants have to be actors to a certain extent in order to fill the role expected — which can often mean also having to read out all manner of stuff — poems about God only taking the best and I am the diamond glints on… Read more »

Kathryn Edwards
Guest
Kathryn Edwards

It’s around this issue of cognitive dissonance that your much-loved comparison of celebrants with actors breaks down, I’d say. Everyone knows an actor is ‘acting’, and so her/his discussion of the experience of being an axe-murderer or a bigamist or a mother or whatever is kept separate (in the audience’s perceptions) from the actual identity of that actor. A celebrant, however, is expected to be authentic: to speak with conviction and to represent the groupthink of a critical mass of the congregation. This is a different matter from the rendering of whatever readings have been selected, and the celebrant’s aesthetic… Read more »

Jonathan
Guest
Jonathan

“…expected to be authentic”, Kathryn; that’s good, but how many funerals have you been to or heard about when what’s actually expected, going by past experiences, is that the vicar will be on automatic pilot while he’s thinking about something else entirely? I’ve tried hard to concentrate on and understand such vicarly outpourrings lots of times, so far without success – the paint drying on the lecturn becomes more engaging. If the family believes an individual has power from a god to dispense grace or something, let that individual do her job unusurped. If an invocation is, to them, a… Read more »

Jenny Uzzell
Guest

Loving the ‘imparsonation’! No problem at all with celebrants leading parayers/hymns…providing it doesn’t lead them too far from their own comfort zone. this is not entirely for the benefit of the family, but also for the benefit of the celebrant. It does not do anyone any good to live with that kind of cognitive dissonance for too long! For any given celebrant that’s aquestion that only they can answer. I do think its important though that celebrants of any kind, be it religious or atheist can and do know when it is time for them to bow out and suggest… Read more »

gloria mundi
Guest

Gosh. Let’s see if I can blunder in here. Some excellent markers: Andrew’s you and us; Jenny’s authenticity; (if a celeb doesn’t feel authentic, the gathering will quickly sense it, and the funeral will fail, at least in part, to do its job) Richard’s distinctions, Charles’ extensions. Etc. But many such discussions tend to assume a “believe”/”not believe” dichotomy, an absolute split. Most/many of us don’t think like that, or feel like that – at least, that’s my conclusion, after meeting so many bereaved people. As for juju ( vicar friend of mine said “heap big juju – you no… Read more »

A Celeb
Guest
A Celeb

Absolutely right about the believe/not believe dichotomy. I often have some spiritual moments yet I really do believe I’m an atheist. And our clients are the same – sometimes in a complete muddle about what they believe oh and auntie Maud will be there and she’s VERY religious. Better have the Lord’s Prayer.
And I regularly meet people who stress that he wouldn’t want ANYTHING religious AT ALL… he was an atheist. But turns out he was an atheist who adored Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s Passion of St. Matthew.

Michael Gamble
Guest

To re iterate Jenny’s point, surely it has a lot to the FD to have a good chat with the family involved and work out with them who is the most appropriate person to take the service. I would be very uncomfortable in instructing a civil celebrant who I knew didn’t have a strong faith to take a service that was likely to have a fair degree of religious content. (Or the other way round, asking the local vicar to take a service with no reference to God!) Luckily in our area we have several celebrants with varying degrees of… Read more »

Andrew Rush
Guest
Andrew Rush

Charles, if one was role playing as a priest would that not be imparsonation?

Vale
Guest
Vale

I like imparsonation!

Charles
Guest

Very good, Andrew!

Charles
Guest

Heck, this is getting hard – way beyond the capabilities of my small brain. Thank you, Richard. I guess it comes down to whether or not the audience looks to the celebrant to dispense juju of some sort — a spell which he/she is not authorised to cast. That’s the moment when a celebrant must send for the shaman/witch doctor/priest/imam/druid. As to prayers and hymns, that’s just a question of sidelining the ego, which is indispensable to role-playing. No spell-casting there. As to A Celeb questioning what is fitting, I suppose him/her to be saying that a celeb is entitled… Read more »

Kathryn Edwards
Guest
Kathryn Edwards

I’d say prayers are borderline-juju.

Jenny Uzzell
Guest

Personally (and speaking from the hallowed heights of no authority whatsoever) I think this comes down to authenticity. I think a celebrant who does something that is not authentic to themselves is not doing the best possible job for a client. If the position of the celebrant is that of a pure materialist secular humanist then if they lead prayers then they are, to a certain extent, being dishonest. This is what concerns me about BHS celebrants including ‘a bit’ of religion’. (Do jump in here and explain why I’m wrong!) The celebrant who does the majority of our funerals… Read more »

Richard
Guest
Richard

Charles, this is good stuff! A couple of points: Pope Pius was only referring to Catholic priests being Persona Christi, not all Christian clergy. So the him/herself isn’t applicable as Catholicism doesn’t allow women priests. Pius was also only referring to this unique and temporary change of status by those ordained by the sacrament of holy orders when priests are transubstantiating the Host at the Eucharistic sacrament of Mass. Catholic priests are not Persona Christi when preaching their homily, for example. A Catholic funeral is only a sacrament when it includes Holy Communion within a Requiem Mass. Many Catholic funerals… Read more »

Richard
Guest
Richard

Charles, you’ve reminded me to find out what happened to the recent innovation of lay ministers at Catholic funerals standing in for priests. I must find out what the take-up has been.
https://www.goodfuneralguide.co.uk/2012/09/lay-ministers-for-catholic-funerals/

Ru Callender
Guest

A celeb, I’m interested in you saying you wouldn’t wear jeans and a t shirt. Really?

Richard
Guest
Richard

A brief digression from this interesting subject. Ru, I’ve felt underdressed at a funeral because my suit wasn’t dark grey enough! I’m reminded of those H. M. Bateman’s cartoons featuring comically exaggerated reactions to minor social gaffes, such as ‘The Man Who Lit His Cigar Before the Loyal Toast’ or ‘The Man Who Threw A Snowball At Saint Moritz’. How about ‘The Man Who Turned Up To A Funeral in Jeans’. Or if HMB moved in somewhat different circles today? ‘The Man Who Said Grace Before The BHA Winterval Dinner’.

A Celeb
Guest
A Celeb

Ru – I was playing devil’s advocate (LOL). I’ve never been asked to wear jeans and t-shirt (I’d love to for the right circumstances) but was once asked to dress as a French maid. I politely declined. However I have played rap songs with swear words etc. but I draw the line at blessing/commending to god.

Charles
Guest

Fitting is a very good word. A priest derives his/authority from the role, which is to act in persona Christi — in the person of Christ “in virtue of which [priests] represent the person of Jesus Christ before their people, acting at the same time as representatives of their people before God”. (Pope Pius XII). This is not an act of role-playing – impersonation; the priest is, at that transcendent, sacramental moment, the personification of Christ (not him/herself, and not one of us). Secular celebrants do not and may not personify any Higher Power. They are role-players, chameleons, jobbing actors,… Read more »

Vale
Guest
Vale

Never a robe, Richard – that would be too much for my plain dissenting ancestors.
I think your question really gets to the heart of the issue, though: are we civils beyond the tribalism of belief? Do we see need and simply respond to people wherever they are? Or are we beneath belief, mercenaries and hired guns willing to adopt any position the client requests?
I love the subtlety of Andrews distinction – between acting as the voice of a congregation and standing at the front and speaking for god. It’s something a dissenter would recognise too.

A Celeb
Guest
A Celeb

Very good question Vale. And it’s not just about where we would draw the religious line. Ultimately, despite the claim we might make that it’s all about what the client wants/believes, there are lots of things I would not say/do/wear. Fitting is a good word. Is it fitting that I wear jeans and a t-shirt? Is it fitting that we play a rap song with swearing? Is it fitting that I (an atheist) bless you? Is it fitting that I (a Christian but not an ordained clergyman) commend your dad’s body to God’s keeping? Is it fitting that I take… Read more »

Richard
Guest
Richard

Interesting question, Vale.

It must be hard to make the call. Or should the call always be down to the family?

Is the trouble sometimes that the family hasn’t thought deeply enough about whether they want civil or religious?

Do they, therefore, put undue pressure on both religious and civil celebrants to swing?

How far have you swung in the past? Have you ever donned a robe?!

Andrew Hickson (Kingfisher Funerals)
Guest

Excellent question, Vale, and one to which I am sure there are many answers. I believe that the answer lies in the very last thing a vicar does at the end of a funeral service, and that is pronounce the blessing of God, to be amongst YOU. That is, the vicar or priest is God’s representative on earth, and therefore has the entitlement to pronounce his (His) blessing. Whether a lay person, such as a civil celebrant, should pronounce this blessing is arguable. I’ve seen them do it, but my own opinion is that they shouldn’t. The way round it… Read more »